November 18, 2018

The Iran deal is done: What history should teach us

Thirty-four senators — 32 Democrats plus two Independents who caucus with the Democrats — have come out in favor of the Iran deal, enough to sustain a presidential veto, so approval of the deal with Iran and five American partners is a foregone conclusion. The questions to ask now are what have we learned and how will we go forward?

Permit me to turn to history and to examine Jewish identity in relation to Israel, an identity shaped by age and by history. For Jews in their 80s and 90s, there is the direct recollection of the Holocaust and the overwhelming gratitude that they naturally feel for the establishment of the State of Israel as a haven for the Jewish people, a place of refuge and an insurance policy for oppressed and endangered Jews everywhere.

My generation, which followed these elders, was shaped by the events in Israel of 1967 and 1973, and so, in turn, we created what Jonathan Woocher described in the 1980s as the Judaism of Sacred Survival: remembrance of the Holocaust entwined with a commitment to Israel’s survival. These two elements were central to our being Jewish, whether we were pious or secular, Orthodox or liberal.

The Judaism of Sacred Survival eroded over time. 

For some, the erosion began in 1982 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon — perceived by many in Israel and in the United States as Israel’s first war of choice — further stained by its bloody and indecisive aftermath. 

For others, the First Intifada changed their perception of Israel from David to Goliath, and raised the Palestinian question to the fore.

For still others, religious Zionists and secular nationalists, a very different segment of Jews in America, the erosion took place in 1993 when the government of Israel established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization — hitherto Israel’s arch enemy — and it seemed as if Israel might withdraw from areas of the West Bank and compromise the nationalist and messianic dream of the Greater Land of Israel that had fueled them. Some of Israel’s most ardent Jewish-American supporters openly criticized the government of Israel, and a sharp religious division developed between Orthodox Jewish religious Zionists — who were joined later by evangelical Zionists — and more liberal Jews concerned about Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic State. Battle lines were drawn, and Israel no longer was a consensus issue for the Jewish-American community. Support for Israel came to be  followed by the question: “What type of Israel?”

For the millennial generation, the experience of Israel has been different, defined by three recent wars — two in Gaza and one in Lebanon, as well as the ongoing battles in the Middle East with and among the Muslim factions of Afghanistan, Iraq, al-Qaida, Syria, Libya and ISIS. More than a dozen years into the crossfire, many of even the most informed American Jews cannot tell you the difference between Shia and Sunni or divide the Muslim populations accordingly. Therefore, many Jews are hesitant about the exercise of military might — American or Israeli — for fear of igniting an even worse outcome, as happened in Iraq.

These various groups of Jews also have major differences in perceptions of Israel. Some perceive Israel as successful and powerful, an economic marvel and a regional military superpower. Others perceive Israel as dependent and vulnerable. They can’t shake the feeling that Jews are always victims, never victors, acted upon in history and not actors in history. The reality is probably that Israel is both. With all its power, Israel has had to confront the limitations of power in each of the post 1967 wars, and with all its pride in Jewish independence, we all live in an interdependent world, and Israel is no exception.

We see the same reality through two very different lenses.

So what have we learned from the Iran deal debate?

It is difficult to defeat the U.S. president on an issue he regards as central to national security. 

Some of us remember how difficult it was to oppose the Vietnam War almost a half century ago. Others will recall the contentious battle and loss in 1981 when Jews attempted to persuade Congress to vote down the newly installed Ronald Reagan administration’s plan (begun by the Jimmy Carter administration) to sell five AWACS (Airborne Warning and Command System) to Saudi Arabia. Still others will note that we still have no congressional action in the war with ISIS. The War Resolution is stalled in Congress, which does not want to assume the responsibility of a vote. Presidential power is significant, and what the U.S. president declares to be in the national interest usually carries the day — this president, any president.

The Israeli prime minister’s speech to Congress failed. 

Invited by Speaker of the House John Boehner, who sought to embarrass the president, at the initiative of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a former Republican operative, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the joint session of Congress made support for the Iran deal — any deal, because at the time the shape of the deal wasn’t known — a partisan issue. The letter sent by 47 Republican senators to Iran only made the issue more partisan, and to date, only two Democratic senators — Charles Schumer (New York) and Robert Menendez (New Jersey) — have come out openly against the deal. Someone misjudged the prime minister’s political strategy. The gamble did not work. So, too, the gambles that preceded it of going partisan in the 2012 elections, and of doing battle with the president early on over what seem like peripheral issues, if Iran is indeed an existential issue.

Today, Jewish organizations, which almost uniformly opposed the deal, have a credibility problem. 

For whom do they speak and what do they represent? One now must wonder whether they speak for the Jews of the United States, who, according to multiple surveys, were far more supportive of the deal than the general American populace, or merely for their membership and older donor base. Have they alienated younger Jews, more liberal Jews? Many may have to recalibrate their message if not their programs.

President Barack Obama’s legacy and the fate of the deal are inextricably linked. 

If the deal works, his judgment will be vindicated. If Iran cheats and develops the bomb, if in that event sanctions cannot be reimposed, or he and/or his successor are unable to engage in strong diplomatic action or effective military action, then Obama’s historical reputation is tarnished and his critics will be correct in regarding him as naïve or as having been taken for a sucker, to use a term that Jewish Journal readers are familiar with. This question provides an important convergence of interest between the president and his critics, and one that should be built upon. Assuming that the president is interested in his historical legacy — and few presidents aren’t — this will be significant leverage going forward.

As to Jews, we have to learn once again how to talk with one another without accusations, and how to fight with one another so that, in the end, we can affirm one another’s fears, values and concerns, even as we vehemently disagree over the potential outcome. Otherwise, a deep divide can grow even deeper. Jews do not speak with one voice. Perhaps we never did, and we may have to learn to harmonize discordant tones.

Now that we have the deal, we have to make it better. Because Jews will face significant problems in the future. It is imperative that we can face them together.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at